Creative teeth: When your work bites

Yesterday, while I was spooning down a trifecta of Tutti Frutti frozen yogurt — honey, cherry almond, and vanilla custard — I was secretly fantasizing about killing someone. I’d been dishing to my pal J about the latest novel I’m reading and loving. It’s a Y.A. fantasy that my adult daughter wrote.

J was like, “Oh wow, your daughter wrote a novel?  What’s it about?”

I’d barely gotten three sentences out when he started laughing. “Another vampire novel?”

Maybe I’d been inspired by one of the characters in the novel, but I almost leapt across the table and tore his throat out with my teeth.

I suppose taking pity on the guy was the right move, considering a) children at nearby tables would have been forever scarred by a fro-yo blood-bath and b) the near-victim knows nothing about the creative process– neither the challenges nor the sacrifices (nor that he was almost one of them).

Other than kicking my powers of creative visualization into high gear and giving me an opportunity to exercise my impulse control, my friend also offered me an opportunity to reflect on some important truths about the creative life:

  1. People are going to mock and criticize because they are cowards themselves. It makes them feel superior and gives them a sense of safety. But it’s actually keeping them from taking risks and keeping them stuck, which is their problem. Not yours or mine. We know our creative baby (or grandbaby) may be fugly but we’re gonna love it anyway. Because it’s ours, and it’s a gift we appreciate because it teaches us about ourselves and the world. Like, how about all that badass discipline it takes to finish something as huge as a novel? How about the vision? The courage to move forward when you don’t know where something is going? These are things to celebrate. Creative risks are moments to celebrate precisely because of the cowardly critics. So maybe on a day when I’m feeling particularly charitable I will remember to thank the person or people laughing at our art for making us all the more heroic in our creative actions.
  2. It has all been done before. Yup. Lots of vampire novels have been written. And that’s because people like to read them. Duh. Fantasy fiction fans are hungry like a blood-starved vampire for another good book to sink their fangs into. So let’s not worry too much if our poem sounds a lot like a Rumi poem or if our novel isn’t novel enough. If we are one among many, that sounds a lot like an audience to me. Carry on.
  3. An entirely valid approach to creativity is imitation. It’s not only the highest form of flattery, it’s also highly instructive. We learn a lot by imitating those we admire. In fact, I’ve watched a painter friend reproduce Van Gogh’s technique, learning from the master though separated by centuries. I’ve got musician friends who swear by learning cover songs for similar reasons: they learn technique and structure as they play songs others have written. I’ll also add that lots of times accomplished musicians pay homage to those they admire by adding a cover to their set list. I saw Panic at the Disco cover Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” this summer and I was blown away. It was done with passion and precision, and no one was laughing that it had been done before.

Want more insights into the creative process and inspiration to keep you going? Come see me over at Wholly Creative.

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The dark side of awesome …

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Free to be me!

Self-help is such a huge industry that it’s become the M.O. for many of us who want to be the best selves we can be. But in some ways I think it’s become insidious in its negation of who we are.

For instance, perhaps I could watch less TV. Then again, I enjoy stories. The shows provide an escape, and I also learn and am inspired by what others see as mindless drivel.

Take The Almighty Johnsons, a kiwi show about four brothers who are Norse gods. The gods’ attributes contribute both power and weakness to their characters. For instance Ull, the god of hunting, while good at games and finding things, can easily cross the line into stalker territory. Bragi, the god of poetry is a natural at PR, but he is also a bit of douche, using his powers to get women in bed. These gods can’t deny their powers, nor the fact that there is a dark side to them.

The_Almighty_Johnsons_season_2If I were among the pantheon, I would be the goddess of the escape. When I was young, I had a knack for breaking in (and out) of places, though seldom causing any real mischief. I wanted to move between spaces, explore different worlds, and I couldn’t see any reason why I should be locked out or in. I slid out of my bedroom window at night, and I wandered into people’s homes, into schools, into hotels after hours. This may have developed because, unless I was in trouble, I was virtually invisible in my family. I could leave for long, unaccounted for hours and return without having to explain myself.

To checkout of the void of a lonely childhood, I read books that transported me to other worlds. I remember fondly Désirée, a very long historical romance novel about Napolean and his lover, where an entire week went by and I existed in a different place in time even when my face wasn’t in its pages.

When I was locked up  – first briefly in juvenile detention and then for about a year in a behavior modification program – for running away from home as an adolescent, I escaped by constructing elaborate fantasies and daydreaming my way into other realms that were more appealing than the church pews I was forced to sit in the entire day to be reprogrammed. I never made an actual break for it because though I’m dreamy, I’m also practical, and I knew I’d be better off in the long run there than on the streets.

After being locked up, I learned to immerse myself in academics, using scholarship and achievement as a socially acceptable form of checking out of the real world. In my early adulthood my problems, like my abusive marriage to an older man, went away as I immersed myself in literature and philosophy. When I abandoned my marriage, I escaped my troubles with drugs and alcohol and men, none of whom I kept around for long. As I got older, I gave up the escapes that were the most destructive. I made a commitment to better self-care. I also committed to a few other things: To my daughter (which kept me in the same geographic place for 18 years), to my writing, to my cats, and to Truth. Not necessarily in that order.

The expression of escape changed. Fundamentally, however, I am still a free spirit. Especially when it comes to ideas.

I have a friend Paul, who regularly calls me because he has “figured something out.” I’ll answer the phone and he’ll deliver some truth he has arrived at such as “It’s all love…love is not the exception” or “If we’re suffering, we’re in ego.” Generally there’s a long story that accompanies the realization. I made the mistake once of saying, after he delivered his punchline (the realization), “Well, Paul, that’s an absolute, and absolutes usually aren’t true.” There was a long moment of silence for the dead idea.

In the interest of our friendship, I have had to learn listen to Paul’s stories and not to respond with the exceptions that do, in fact, unravel his theories. Some people like the solidity of Desireeabsolutes; it makes them feel safe. As the goddess of escapism, I’m also the queen of exceptions because exceptions allow the mind to wriggle free of the confines of a governing concept.

“I can see how you would be difficult for people,” our mutual friend John said (I tend to collect friends named after the apostles, evidently). “You’re hard to pin down.”

In fact, one of my favorite things about teaching English was that I teach thinking – that is how to think, and what people have thought, rather than a specific point-of-view. For me, my superpower is that I think fluidly, I am often unattached to ideas, and I can see things from multiple perspectives.

Sure this comes with its challenges, for instance, I can be indecisive. But when it comes to my relationship with Truth, it actually is helpful. I’m not talking about truth with a lowercase “t” as in “Did you take the garbage out? Tell the truth.” I mean the Truth about the nature of being, about why we are here, where we go when we die, and what it all means (if anything).

I’m very comfortable with a multiplicity of views. And I’m very comfortable knowing that these are questions that point at the infinite (God-type stuff) and that my intellect and language is finite and so my thoughts and words can only generally point in the direction of what I am discussing. And when this infinite shifts and takes on new form, I’m comfortable going “and there it is again over there contradicting what I just said.” It’s part of the mystery of life. And I can know it and revere it without being able to explain it.

Of course, part of the nature of being in flow like this is that I tend to not attach myself to things like money or people for very long. It has its challenges, for sure. And when I get on a self-improvement jag, I can sometimes start yanking at the roots of this thing, forgetting that in doing so, I’m going to eradicate what makes me me. I named after the wind, after all, and destined to slide between cracks into spaces that want to be explored. And like wind, I may settle down, but never for long.

It seems to me that my job is to know my power, to explore new opportunities to use it, and to do my best to use it responsibly – with the understanding that sometimes my power is more powerful than my will to control it.

The dark side of awesome is still awesome. What’s your superpower? What’s its dark side? How can you help save the world?

Get my guide Get Moving and Get Things Done (there’s no better way to be awesome and it’s totally free).

Gift from a fairy godmother

I have been working on a memoir about relinquishing custody of my daughter so that I could be a writer, essentially surrendering my procreative life for a creative one (working title Mommy-A-Go-Go). Recently, I was invited to a baby shower for an expectant writer/editor friend. The guests were like fairy godmothers, each with a special gift to bestow. Well into the event, I learned that one of them — a literary agent with William Morris Agency — had something for my little work-in-progress, too.

After the shower wrapped up, a few of us, including the mom-to-be and her agent friend, decided to head out to a Fort Lauderdale pub. The bar’s dim lighting and dark wood felt like the perfect setting to discuss my project. I casually gave the “elevator pitch” (a description of the project in the short time it would take to ride an elevator) to the group.

“How far along are you?” one woman (not the agent) asked.

I winced inwardly. The unborn baby we’d just showered was a lot further along in its gestation; mine was still a mere embryo. I admitted I’d only gotten about 40 pages in, and I could feel whatever interest I’d piqued during my pitch immediately wane.

“Wait, this isn’t a pitch,” I silently corrected myself. “It’s a friendly conversation.”

So I explained some of my challenges: my memoir on being a noncustodial parent was presenting as vignettes rather than cohesive narrative and I’d spent a lot of time digging through boxes of memorabilia to reconstruct the events surrounding my decision to give up custody of my daughter two decades ago. And then there was that monkey wrench that got thrown in  after I’d begun writing the story:

“Her junior year of high school, she jumped out of the bedroom window at her dad’s and came to live with me. I was suddenly a full-time mom,” I told them. “I’d quit my nightlife column and was working to change my lifestyle to a healthier one, so you’d think it would be a perfect time to have her move in. But it wasn’t easy. During a yoga class a week into the new arrangement, I kept trying to give my self a silent pep talk, but on the way out to my car I began blubbering to myself, ‘I don’t want a growth experience.'”

I told them about how over the course of a year and a half, my daughter and I became closer and our relationship nourished both of us, allowing both to heal the wounds where we’d been severed from each other.

Anne Lamott wrote the first motherhood memoir. I'm writing a memoir about a rebirth into motherhood, a second chance.

The agent wasn’t excited about my story (I bet people tell her all the time about the book they plan to write), but she was supportive. She suggested that a better approach would be to focus on the time that my daughter lived with me until she left for college and to use those vignettes I’d already written as flashbacks. Our conversation provided me with feedback that has helped me further find the shape and heartbeat of the story.

I feel good about the experience. While I don’t have a literary agent and I am not yet ready for one, I got some much needed feedback from someone in the industry. I’m going to take her advice and start in the middle of the story — in medias res as the conventional wisdom about storytelling has it — and see how it goes. Maybe next time I have a similar opportunity, my literary baby will be ready to be showered with love and attention, too.

Creating an audience

I was a grad school drop-out.

Half way through graduate school, I realized I didn’t want to write about writing as much as I just wanted to write. I didn’t want to “chase David Mamet around the table,” which is how I once described what my thesis on the playwright felt like. Ironically, Mamet was telling me (via Writing in Restaurants, I think, but maybe it was True & False or Three Uses of the Knife or maybe all three; it’s a blur now) if I wanted to be a writer, I should get the hell out of school and get to writing.

Mamet drove taxis so he could write.

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The University of Texas at Austin has acquired the papers of playwright, writer and film director David Mamet

In the days before the Internet offered online communities and education, the local university was the only option for me, who had few resources. It wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t the best place for me since the school offered only an MA in English rather than an MFA in creative writing. When I started writing poetry and taking poetry workshops, that was the beginning of the end of grad school for me.

The thing is, my poetry had an audience. A dozen people around a conference table was better than the audience of one that was the college professor grading my essays/thesis. Even better was when I started collaborating with musicians and taking my poetry to the community.

My love of writing didn’t begin with my writing. It began with reading others’ work, with me being spoken to of other worlds by some narrator. I was a lonely child, and I fell in love with my solace: books. And all the years of composing secret poetry, of talking to no one, impressed upon me deeply. I yearned for approval from my instructors when I turned in papers. The comments were the most gratifying part of an assignment: I had a reader, someone who had listened.

I tell you this now because you are a writer, too. And I bet you’d give your  (insert a beloved body part here) to have an audience who really got you, really appreciated your writing, was (insert desired reaction) by your work, and couldn’t get enough. It is the dream.

One of the things that has kept me writing is that I don’t write to a void. I actually have a reader in mind. Sometimes its an exboyfriend who thought he loved me because he loved my writing or the girl who I watched pick up an article of mine in a bar and then kept returning to it even after she’d been many times distracted. Sometimes it’s my daughter and other college newbies.

What motivates me is the audience, which is why I tend to be most prolific and creative when I’m on assignment and I know a piece will be published.

But it’s not a perfect world full of eager editors who value creativity (but thanks to those who have and do!). So I motivate myself by finding calls for submissions, which provide (much like my editors used to) assignments and deadlines.

The Internet now provides a mind-boggling number of  forums for publishing work in communities of other writers. For instance, now I’ve found an MFA program that suits me, and my fellow Antioch University students decided to take the book annotations that we are required to do for the program and publish them at annotationnation.wordpress.com. This is a forum where writers of fiction discuss how books have been helpful to them in their craft. Since I’d read and annotated some books of fiction, I sent over what I’d written, just to be in community with other writers and readers.

Look for those opportunities. It’s how we create our niche, claim our craft, and contribute to a community. In essence, having an audience means that our writing matters to someone besides ourselves.